Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

Elaine Pagels
Random House, New York, 1988; hardcover, 189 pages.

At a conference on "Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism" held a few years ago in Claremont, California, Professor Elaine Pagels told an informative tale out of personal experience. While traveling in the Sudan, she had a conversation with the foreign minister of that country, who was a member of the local tribe of the Dinka. He impressed on Pagels' mind that the culture of the Dinka in all its contemporary manifestations was still profoundly influenced by the creation myth of their ancient lore. Upon returning to her hotel, the professor found there two recent issues of Time magazine, the first of which featured the topic of bisexuality in the United States, and the second contained letters to the editor on the same subject. Four of the six letters mentioned the story of Adam and Eve and supported their views by referring to the story of Genesis. The Dinka, a tribe in a third-world country, evaluate their modern concerns in the light of their ancient creation myth, and modern, secularized, sophisticated Americans do exactly the same. In either case, the creation myth appears to have enormous influence.

This moment of truth in Khartoum led Pagels to the research that resulted in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. As a church historian, she discovered that the first three chapters of Genesis have exerted a great influence on the attitudes of Christians in our culture and that the nature and tone of this influence was determined primarily by the kind of interpretation attached to these scriptural passages by the leaders of early Christian thought.

It is necessary to remember that the first three or four centuries of Christian history were characterized by a pluralism which was a far cry from the orthodoxies of later times. Christian communities and individual teachers taught widely differing doctrines and interpreted scripture in different ways. Thus the literalist party (which after the third century was elevated to the status of normative orthodoxy), represented by Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and others, saw in Genesis a historical event which justified their low opinion of the female gender and of sexuality. Tertullian called women the "Devil's gateway" and asserted that because of Eve's sin the sentence of God rests on the feminine sex forever, and women should properly feel guilty in consequence. In spite of the absence of explicit scriptural evidence to support the notion, these church fathers also held that the original sin of Adam and Eve was in some way of a sexual nature, and thus human sexuality was as tainted as the character of women, if indeed not more.

The Gnostic Christians, on the other hand, did not look upon the story of Genesis as history with a moral, as did the literalists, but rather they treated it as a myth with a meaning. Gnostic exegetes generally regarded the first three chapters of Genesis as containing a myth that revealed in symbol the interaction of soul and spirit within the human person, an interpretation which would have delighted such modern scholars of myths as C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell. Needless to say, such a mode of interpretation totally negates the gross and unjust reductionism whereby women and human sexuality are made to bear the guilt and shame of Adam and Eve. One may also reflect with some profit on the course Western culture may have followed had the Gnostic mythical mode of interpretation become the dominant one in lieu of the literal historical one which still continues to cast an oppressive shadow on attitudes and mores in our times.

Another conclusion drawn by the orthodox from the first three chapters of Genesis has been the belief in the corruption of human nature. Human beings, this belief holds, are so corrupt that they cannot be trusted to arrive at valid choices in their private and public conduct. Morally corrupt sinners that we are, we cannot be considered fit to govern ourselves, and thus it becomes necessary that individuals submit to the power of governments, no matter how tyrannical. Humanity forfeited its freedom when it yielded to the advice of the Serpent of Paradise.

One person who propounded such teachings concerning the corrupt human condition was Saint Augustine of Hippo, whom Pagels makes out to be the chief villain in the drama under consideration. "Augustine's pessimistic views of sexuality, politics, and human nature would become the dominant influence on Western Christianity," she writes, "and color all Western culture, Christian or not, ever since." It is here that her thesis begins to show a certain ambiguity, which one might consider the weakness of the entire work.

Before Augustine, Pagels claims, Genesis was read much more as a promise of freedom, and had it not been for the guilt-ridden sainted genius, Christendom might have become some sort of libertarian happy hunting ground of the spirit. Yet in chapters two, three and four of her book, she show abundant evidence indicating that anti-feminine, anti-sexual and ant-libertarian views were widely held by the orthodox and that the only people who were truly free of such attitudes without any reservations were the Gnostics. The trouble, it would seem, goes farther back than Augustine, and has much to do with the suppression of the Gnostics and their intra-psychic, mythological mode of interpreting scripture. Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox churches never accepted the teachings of Augustine, but followed instead their own authority, St. John Chrysostom, yet there is little if any evidence indicating that they were or are any less subservient to tyrannical worldly governments than their Western counterparts. (Nor does one observe a higher reared for women or for sexuality in Eastern Orthodox theology.)

In 1979 Elaine Pagels gave the world one of the most lucid and fair pioneering works on the Gnostics, The Gnostic Gospels. Those who expect to find in her present work a companion volume to the first may be disappointed. Readers possessing Gnostic and esoteric sympathies will be gratified however, by the third chapter of this work, "Gnostic Improvisations on Genesis" (pp. 57-77). Here we read statements such as the following:

Gnostic Christians . . .castigated the orthodox for making the mistake of reading the Scriptures-and especially Genesis-literally, and thereby missing its "deeper meaning". Read literally, they said, the story of creation made no sense. [Here follows a recounting of absurd statements in Genesis. S.A.H.] Certain gnostic Christians suggested that such absurdities show that the story was never meant to be taken literally. . . .These, gnostics took each line of the Scriptures as an enigma, a riddle pointing to a deeper meaning. Read this way, the text became a shimmering surface of symbols, inviting the spiritually adventurous to explore its hidden depths, to draw upon their own inner experience-what artists call the creative imagination-to interpret the story (pp. 63-64).

The repression of the creative imagination, recognized by the late C. G. Jung as one of the great shortcomings of orthodox Christianity, did not begin with Augustine in the fourth century, but much earlier with Irenaeus, Tertullian and other anti-Gnostic fathers. In the hands of the orthodox, the myth of Genesis logically leads to the unfortunate conclusions which Pagels deplores, while in the hands of the Gnostic, the myth is turned into a revelatory instrument of self-knowledge.

One cannot escape the impression that Pagels neglected to draw the kind of conclusions from the above recognitions which naturally would suggest themselves. Would it not be more reasonable to say that the literal interpretation of Genesis, beginning in the earliest Christian times, and not the relatively late pessimistic theology of Augustine, was responsible for the loss of freedom-whether political, moral or imaginative-and thus for so many unfortunate conditions evident in our culture? It may be that the praise lavished on Prof. Pagels by the heterodox, and the criticisms directed against her by the orthodox in the wake of the publication of her The Gnostic Gospels have made her doubly uncomfortable and made her shy away from a more forthright thesis. While this may be regretted, her work in general is to be recommended.

-Stephan A. Hoeller